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Up to $150,000 in missing water billing? Councilman wants to explore recoup options

LAPLACE — St. John the Baptist Parish could be missing out on more than $150,000 in utilities billing per year from illegal water meter usage, according to Kevin Belanger, CEO of South Central Planning & Development Commission.

Belanger approached the St. John Parish Council Wednesday afternoon with a proposal to join a company algorithm with private utilities databases to identify St. John residents who do not have a water meter properly registered.

According to Belanger, St. John Parish utilities director Blake Fogleman estimated every water meter unaccounted for is a $52 loss for the parish per month.

Using data from contracted work performed in Terrebonne Parish, Belanger estimates St. John is missing out on $13,000 in billing per month.

“We know there are water meters that are used by multiple structures in every parish,” Belanger said. “This would tell you which residences do not have a proper meter installed or if you have multiple homes on one meter, which is from what I gather, not applicable to the law in St. John. We’re using databases with algorithms we’ve created to find the people who are getting by without paying their fair share.”

Council members Larry Sorapuru Jr. and Larry Snyder were receptive to the conversation, while Council members Marvin Perrilloux, Tom Malik and Michael Wright cautioned against adding another contract to an already extensive list of projects.

Belanger did not specify a cost for the prospective project but said it could likely total $40,000.

When Sorapuru presented a motion to set a meeting with Belanger to discuss the process further, Perrilloux said more research must be done.

“We can’t get too many hands into the fire, or we’re spending bad money,” Perrilloux said. “Let’s see what’s going on first before getting into another contract about water. We don’t need a motion to sit down with him.”

Chief Financial Officer Robert Figuero referenced ongoing projects, including the major advanced metering infrastructure installation projected to start in April 2019 and conclude in April 2020.

“There’s several other projects with utility billing installation and software,” Figuero said. “We need to assess them all before we jump into something new too quick.”

Snyder affirmed his support for identifying missing meters, adding he thinks it should be incorporated in the new meter installation.

“This is where we need to start and identify if our meters are not where they should be,” Snyder said. “Whoever comes in and does this contract (for the advanced metering installation) is going to have to do the same thing, and their job would be so large that we may miss some things. We need someone to come in and focus on just that aspect of it. It’s a good process.”

Sorapuru said Belanger’s offer is a chance to grab “low-hanging fruit” and get the utilities department in line financially.

“We couldn’t find meters, and we’ve got some that we don’t know where they’re at,” Sorapuru said. “I’m sick of all these guessing games. I want to be able to rest at night knowing we did the best we can do for this community when it comes down to public safety, having water and making sure the people and industrial sectors are responsible for what is going on.”

Despite withdrawing his motion, Sorapuru said he still wants to meet with Belanger, administration officials and two or three council members “as soon as possible” to discuss project costs and potential timelines in relation to ongoing water meter work.